Chapter 6: The Face of Hope
"What say you, now, Elrond?"
"The wounds will heal cleanly. As for the other..."
"Your skills have never yet failed you."
"I rarely use them on those of his race, and the taint of the Enemy was foul within him."
The voices came from just above him, drawing him slowly up from a deep sleep. His body was not yet his to command, so he could do no more than listen, though he doubted the words they spoke were meant for his ears. He lay with eyes closed, as still as the death that had so nearly claimed him, while the voices continued.
"But you have cleansed away that taint, and the Man heals."
"Aye," Elrond answered, slowly, as though loath to commit himself. "For now."
"What of the Council, then? You will postpone it, until Boromir is well enough to attend?"
"I fear we have no choice. He is the voice of Minas Tirith, nay, of all Gondor in our counsels. I would resolve this matter at once, but I cannot, without Gondor."
"Well, Frodo, for one, will not complain of the delay, and I would see him better rested before such an ordeal."
"One day. No more. Elves, dwarves and men have arrived, Frodo mends, and time passes all too swiftly. We can afford no more than a day, Gandalf."
Gandalf! The name shocked Boromir out of his stupor and brought his eyes abruptly open. Looking about him in momentary confusion, his eyes narrowed against the light, he found himself lying in a wide, white bed, with cushions behind his back and head and supporting his injured arm. He lay wrapped in warmth and comfort so complete that he could not have stirred himself and disturbed the utter stillness of his body, had an army of orcs stormed over the parapet to reach him. He recognized the chamber as the one where Elrond had brought him upon his arrival. The walls were cut of pale stone, carved into graceful and fantastic shapes, the ceiling upheld by pillars shaped as mighty trees. To his right, the room opened onto a wide colonnade that overlooked the valley. No glazing or shutters protected the lofty archways, and the air carried the scent of dry leaves and cold, stone pools.
Then his eyes wandered to his left, toward the inner doorway, and he saw two figures standing beside his bed. Aware of his waking, they both gazed at him expectantly. One was Lord Elrond, and the other...
"Mithrandir," he muttered, his voice thick with long sleep.
The wizard's shrewd eyes twinkled at him from beneath bristling, white brows. "Well met, Boromir. We had almost given you up for lost."
"Mithrandir." Boromir made an effort to collect his thoughts and finally managed to voice one of the myriad questions clogging his mind. "What are you doing here?"
"Seeking the counsel of the Wise, as are you."
"I did not think Gandalf the Grey ever sought the counsel of others."
"No more did I think it of you, Son of Denethor."
Boromir was not so sleepy that he missed the pointed mention of his father, or the gentle mockery in the wizard's words. There was no love between Denethor and Mithrandir, and little tolerance. Boromir suspected that much of the fault lay in his father's pride and fierce independence, but loyalty to his lord would not allow him to admit as much. He kept his face neutral, as he gazed up into the bearded, weathered visage of the old wizard.
Mithrandir planted his fists at his waist, smiling down at Boromir with unexpected affection in his gaze. "It seems you met with some adventures on your road."
"None to speak of."
The wizard chuckled at his dry tone. "When Elrond told me that a seeker from the White City was lost in the wilds about Rivendell, I feared the worst. Now, I see that I will not have to bear the tale of your death back to your father, for which I am deeply grateful. I leave you to Master Elrond's care, but I say again, well met. And I shall remember, for the future, that nearly being made into a wolf's supper is 'nothing to speak of'."
Still chuckling, Mithrandir strode out of the room, leaving Boromir alone with Elrond. Bracing himself, the weary soldier turned his gaze on the enigmatic elf lord.
Boromir had no idea what to expect from Elrond. He had not spoken above a dozen words to him, at their first meeting, before the elf had whisked him away to this room and this bed, and ordered him to sleep. He had not intended to obey, being far too curious about his surroundings and anxious to tell Elrond of his quest, but something in the air of the room had overpowered him. One moment, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring about him in wonder, and the next, he was lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the wide mattress, his mind awash in dreams.
Some of those dreams, he knew, were no part of sleep. He remembered Elrond's face and the sound of soft, elven voices singing. He remembered words spoken to him in a language he did not understand, words as beautiful and terrible as blades that pierced his head and breast, driving pitilessly through him. Where the words pierced him, he bled, pain and corruption and lurking shadows flowing darkly from the wounds. The blood-letting was an agony, but as the evil drained out of him, it left him lightened, unstained. And even the pain of it was a gift.
Then came the dreams of true sleep, muted and healing, and the long, slow, gentle waking. He had drifted up from the sheltering darkness to the sound of voices, to find himself eavesdropping on Elrond and Mithrandir, hearing words he would rather not have heard. Now he faced a complete unknown, and for once in his life, he did not feel himself equal to the challenge.
Elrond seemed to sense his wariness and unease, for his stern features softened as he asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Better. Not so cold."
"The shadow that chilled you has been lifted. You need only rest to heal, now."
"I thank you, Master Elrond."
Elrond nodded gracious acceptance of his words, then fixed those piercing eyes on his face again. "You are mended in spirit, but you are not easy in mind. What troubles you, Boromir of Gondor?"
Boromir hesitated for a moment, then, emboldened by his open manner, asked, "How did you know I was coming?"
"I did not. I knew that members of all the free races of Middle-earth were making their way to Imladris, drawn here by the currents of fate, of good and evil, of crisis and decision. I knew that some of your race would come, and I knew that among them must be one from Minas Tirith, the citadel of Men. Beyond that," he lifted his shoulders in an elegant shrug, "I merely waited upon events."
"Then, you knew nothing of the dream that brought me hither."
"How should I?" Boromir gave no answer, but at his embarrassed look, the elf lips quirked in a wry smile. "Is that the kind of tale they tell of the Eldar, in these times? Nay, Boromir. I do not invade the dreams of Men. If I wanted to summon the son of Denethor to my council, I would use more direct means."
"Yet, when we met, you called me by name."
"You were then within the borders of my realm, and all herein are known to me."
In the face of the elven lord's quiet mirth, Boromir could not bring himself to mention the trouble closest to his heart, the kingly vision that had visited him in the wilderness. He felt exposed and off balance, as if he had wandered into one of his brother's fanciful tales, and he would not betray his uncertainty any further. Retreating into dry humor, he murmured, "A typically elvish answer."
Elrond smiled again. "And a typically human reaction. Rest, now, Soldier of Gondor. The fate of Middle-earth will wait for yet another day, as will your questions." The elf reached toward him with one strong, slender hand. "Rest and heal."
Boromir had no chance to protest. The instant Elrond's hand touched his forehead, his eyes closed and he slept.
When he awoke again, it was late afternoon, and he was alone. Boromir lay for some time in the restful stillness of the chamber, breathing in the strange, elvish air of the place and taking stock of his body's pains. His wounds still hurt, but it was the clean hurt of healing, not the foul rot of corruption, and the stiffness in his limbs told him that he needed activity more than rest. He knew from long experience that a brisk walk would give him more strength than another hour of sleep. And he was famished.
A glance around the room told him that Elrond had anticipated him. His clothing hung over a nearby chair, cleaned and furbished, and his sword stood ready to hand against the bedstead. On a table near the outer parapet lay an ample meal.
Boromir shoved back the blankets and got carefully to his feet. Lack of food and too much sleep made him lightheaded, and his body did not respond to his commands with its usual power or ease. He had to think ahead and give himself time to react, which only served to put him more off balance. The sense of having been ensnared in a legend, caught somewhere outside the mortal world, only intensified in the lonely peace of his chamber, and he found himself anxious to get back into his own clothing - his own skin.
He already wore a silken shirt, similar to the one mangled by the wolves but of distinctly elven design, which he left on to protect his bandaged wounds. Over this, he donned his mail, tunic, and full gear, leaving only his gloves and shield on the chair. His sword he buckled at his hip, though he did not believe he would need it in Elrond's house, nor that he could draw it if such need arose. It steadied him and reminded him of who and what he was.
Thus armored against the unknown, he sat down on the parapet, overlooking the deep, cloven dale of Imladris, and ate his meal. By the time he finished, the sun had slid well down the sky, throwing long shadows across the valley toward his high perch. Boromir picked up the last piece of fruit, tossing it idly into the air and catching it in his left hand, while his eyes roamed curiously over the fair buildings set into the steep, rocky sides of the vale. With his hunger appeased, he felt restless, full of energy, and unwilling to remain penned in his chamber any longer. So, with an apple in his hand and his sword at his side, he set out to explore Rivendell.
He came upon the great hall by accident, while wandering the vastness of Elrond's house. But even as he stepped through the archway and into the dim, lofty chamber, he suspected that the subtle magic of place had been guiding him here from the start. The feeling of unreality, of having blundered out of his own life and into an elven legend, intensified. In truth, this room seemed to be its source, and each step he took across the inlaid floor carried him another generation into the past, under the eyes of the watchful shadows. His booted feet echoed strangely in the silence, setting the carved pillars to whispering as he passed.
Down a handful of stairs and along the pillared gallery that circled the chamber he went, his steps slow as his eyes traveled about the hall in wonder. Suddenly, they were caught by a wash of ethereal color on the wall in front of him. He moved up to the mural and gazed at the familiar scene - infinitely familiar, though he had never set eyes on this painting before. It was a scene burned into the hearts and minds of every child of Gondor, every scion of the royal house of Men, every warrior who ever lifted a sword against the Shadow.
Sauron the Great and Isildur, the doomed hero of mankind. Boromir felt a thrill of awe and dread at the sight of them. They were the symbols that had governed his life since birth, and in this enchanted place, he could almost imagine that they breathed.
His eyes scanned the gallery again, eager for more to feast upon, and he saw a graceful statue gazing passionlessly at him from across the aisle. He crossed the gallery, then climbed two shallow, stone steps to reach the platform where the statue stood. She held a wide tray on her outstretched hands, and as Boromir looked down upon it, he felt a leap of amazement in his breast, a flare of wild hope. For there, gleaming against a white cloth, lay the broken remnants of a mighty sword. A sword out of legend.
"The shards of Narsil..." He had not intended to speak aloud, and was only half aware that he had done so. Reaching out to touch the grip of the sword, he lifted it from its stone bed and raised it into the light. "The sword that cut the Ring from Sauron's hand."
The weapon felt cold and solid in his hands, as real as the one that hung at his side. And yet, this could not be, for the Sword that was Broken was naught but an ancient legend, lost in the obscuring mists of time. He loosened his grip on the sword and ran one finger up the short length of blade. The ragged point, where the rest of the blade had been snapped off, caught at the tip of his finger, drawing blood. Boromir snatched his hand back.
He put the bleeding finger to his lips. It tasted of salt, warm and human. Boromir smiled and let his eyes caress the blade again. A legend it might be, but it was real enough to draw blood from a living man, and the solidity of it gave him renewed confidence in his burgeoning hopes. He was a man who believed in stout shields and sharp blades, not elvish sorcery, and his experiences on the road to Rivendell had shaken him badly. To find the Sword, in the very place the riddle promised, and to hold it in his hands, feel its edge on his flesh, was to believe.
Something new touched him, as he stood with Narsil's hiltshards in his hand, a sense of being watched that sent a prickle of apprehension down his spine. He turned quickly, to find a man seated only a few paces away, on a stone bench, a book open on his knee. The man's eyes were fixed on Boromir, vivid and intense, burning him with their gaze.
Boromir looked into the man's face, and for a terrible moment, he thought he had gone completely mad. The face before him swam out of focus, and over it he saw another face - starlight and shadows, with a crown shining upon its brow - the face of his vision. Almost, he stepped toward the man. Almost, he cried out in recognition and delight. But even as the sound rose to his lips, he choked it back and tore his eyes away from the haunting vision, for in that moment he realized that the man before him was no apparition. No crown flickered upon his brow. No starlight shone in his eyes. No ancient wisdom touched his features. He was as much a living creature as Boromir himself and entirely human.
Boromir's fingers opened of their own volition, and the sword hilt fell heavily to the stone tray, as he muttered, "No more than a broken handle."
He turned on his heel and strode away, hesitating only when he heard the hilt slip and clatter to the step. A dark flush crept into his cheeks, born of chagrin and a dull anger, and he flung himself up the stairs, out of the hall, as quickly as dignity allowed. Fleeing the cheating image of the king who was no king, he headed down the corridor toward the first open archway he could see and the freedom of open air.
The cool Autumn breeze was welcome on his overheated face. He leaned over the parapet and breathed deeply to calm his pounding heart, struggling for control and composure. So many emotions seethed within him that he could not sort them out or make sense of them, and he felt physically sick with their pressure.
He knew that the man seated back in the hall was not the king of his vision. He knew this, because reason forbade it. But in the months since his departure from Gondor, Boromir had walked far beyond the borders of reason, into a realm where dreams and legends had more substance than the mortal world. In this realm, where a broken sword presaged the doom of Middle-earth, could not his fever dream take shape into a king? That thought frightened him, but even more frightening was his willingness to believe it.
Tilting his head up to feel the soft breeze on his face, he whispered, "What is this place? How did I wander into it, and how do I find my way out again?"
"This is the fairest place in all Middle-earth, save one," a voice answered, from behind him, "and few who are fortunate enough to find it leave it willingly."
Boromir whirled around and backed defensively against the parapet, his hand reaching for his sword. In the shadow of the archway stood the man he had seen in the gallery.
"I beg your pardon," the man said. "I did not mean to startle you."
Boromir gave a muttered curse and let go of his sword hilt. "Then you shouldn't sneak up on me from behind."
The man smiled and took a step toward him, moving out from under the arch and into full sunlight, his booted feet silent against the stone. Boromir had to fight to stifle his reaction, as the clear light revealed the man's features to him, and he saw again the face of his vision before him. It was indeed the same face - ageless and fair, stern and kind - but the last vestiges of unreality were now gone from it, fled with the haunting shadows of the great hall, and Boromir could see the very human lines of fatigue and sorrow cut into it. Blue eyes met his directly for a moment, set beneath dark brows that seemed permanently creased with trouble. And behind the intent gaze Boromir saw something else that unsettled him even more. It was doubt, or hesitancy, a kind of subtle retreat, even though the man had sought him out and now forced this meeting upon him.
"I am no threat to you, Boromir of Gondor."
"Does everyone in Imladris know my name?"
Boromir's sour annoyance brought the smile back to the stranger's face, though his eyes remained somber. "Gandalf told me you had arrived."
"And what concern is it of yours? Or Mithrandir's?"
"The fate of Middle-earth is the concern of us all. Is that not why we are here?"
"You sound just like an elf," Boromir muttered.
The man gave a slight, ironic bow. "I thank you."
"I did not mean it as a compliment. Who are you, that you look like a man, talk like an elf, and gossip with wizards?"
"I am called Strider."
"Strider? Captain of the Rangers?"
It was Strider's turn to look startled. "Aye."
"Then I have a message for you. I met one of your company on the Greenway, and he asked me to tell Strider that his brother-in-arms sends all duty and affection."
Strider nodded and murmured quiet thanks. Then, he fixed his eyes to Boromir's face again and asked, "Why do you look upon me as an enemy?"
"I do not." Under the ranger's steady gaze, Boromir squirmed slightly and lost some of his belligerence. "It is the air of this place. I do not belong here, among all this elvish strangeness, and it makes me feel... as though my thoughts are not my own."
He could not tell Strider the true cause of his discomfort, though the look of understanding in the other man's eyes tempted him. What would this ranger say, if Boromir were to tell him that he wore the face of an hallucination? No doubt, he would go straight to Lord Elrond to inform him that his patient was suffering delusions, and that would land Boromir back in his sickbed, with superior elven lords and meddlesome wizards standing over him, exchanging dire predictions about his sanity and strength. The very thought was appalling.
"There is no evil here, lest you bring it with you," Strider murmured.
Boromir winced at that unsubtle barb. He did not need the ranger to remind him that he had brought a shadow of evil into Rivendell, carried close about his heart and mind. Nor did he need the reminder of Elrond's words, so eloquent in their hesitation, warning that he might again fall prey to that evil. Most of all, he did not need to hear his private fears on another man's lips.
Strider must have read his reaction in his face, for he took a hasty step forward, lifting his hand toward the other man, and said, "Boromir..."
Boromir stiffened, drawing himself up and away from the open hand. "If you'll pardon me, I am weary." He gave a curt bow, soldier to soldier, and turned on his heel to leave.
"I have had enough of elvish answers for one day!" Then he strode away, ignoring Strider's exasperated call, his head held resolutely high.
'Gods and Devils!' he thought, as he walked swiftly along the graceful colonnade. 'How did I end up in this place?' His words to the ranger were only too true. He did not belong in this realm of sorcery and living legend. Faramir would understand it, even revel in it, but not Boromir. All Boromir wanted was a clear answer to his riddle and a fast horse back to Minas Tirith.
To be continued...